Review of Byerley's 'Jinja'

Jonas R Bylund

Caution: The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in Urban Studies, 45(5&6), May/2008 by SAGE Publications Ltd./SAGE Publications, Inc., All rights reserved. © Urban Studies Journal Ltd

Becoming Jinja: The Production of Space and Making of Place in an African Industrial Town, ANDREW BYERLEY, 2005, Stockholm: Department of Human Geography, pp. 493; € 46.44 paperback, ISBN 91-85445-08-8

Anyone who’s thrilled by Jacques Tati’s Playtime will appreciate the main theme of Byerley’s Becoming Jinja. Particularly the film’s grand finale of the restaurant’s first opening night, with all the high modernist aesthetic and equipment, the smart but ineffective gadgets and organization of waiters, and the gradual evolvement of that planned order into what some would call chaos, others a working and functioning order. Not that Becoming Jinja is particularly funny, but it picks up on the same theme of intended order and practised outcomes. Through the focal point of the Walukuba Estate in Jinja, a master planned housing area built in the 1950s Uganda, Byerley analyses and shows the constant struggles of various actors – colonial administration, state, worker, officials, informal sector merchants, etc. – to shape up the world according to their interest.

Byerley’s central focus are the negotiations or conflicts over what is or should be ‘out of place’ or not; it is ‘a genealogical examination of both the shifting configurations of lines and modalities of force relations … and the potentially contested discursive and material representations of space and place … at a range of scales as channeled through the case study of one town in colonial and post-colonial Uganda’ (Jinja, p. 54). The two main conceptual hinges used to capture the force relations and representations of space and place are ‘diagrams of power’ and ‘space-place tensions.’ In order to achieve this, Byerley harness two analytical instruments. One is ‘diagrams of power,’ a device borrowed from Foucault (or Deleuze’s further development of it) and used to capture and map out the interests and intentions, and above all – as the name suggests – the force relations of the actors. The second is ‘tensions of space-place,’ which is used to trace the effects of the great modern myth of the human ability to master a territory and their location ‘at the interface of strategic projects operating at different scales, with varying temporal horizons and with different modes of spatialisation that alternatively seek to hold or master territory, produce space or make place’ (Jinja, p. 456).

In other words, Byerley sets out to analyse the entropy of a planned order. The theme could perhaps be thought of as the apparent paradox of the efficiency and bluntness of planning and managing, governmentality and policy. The text thus revolves around a central topic for both (urban) planners and students of urban governance: how to set up a working order of elements interacting for the optimal benefit of all. And how does practitioners handle the ‘gap’ between desire and the shape of the materialisation of that desire; intention and outcome (cf. Holston, 1989). Byerley tells the story of how the British colonial administration set-up an order of modern society in bricks and stone, but also of the provisional character of that seemingly well-cemented model modern structure had. The point of entropy being, as Byerley uses a lot of help from Deleuze and Guattari, that ‘diagrams of power inevitably mutate and become destabilised’ (Jinja, p. 19). In the West, we recognise this from the 200 years of planning in Europe (cf. Sennett, 1997). Particularly in the sense that the Walukuba Estate was designed to re-code, re-program, the inhabitants – cross out the ‘rural’ and ‘tribal’ and prescribe a modern way-of-life (Jinja, p. 29).

Although this is not really a text on the everyday life of Jinja, understood as a day in the life, but rather roundabout a century in the life of the industrial town. It is the story of a series of colonial and post-colonial translations of Jinja and subsequently the Walukuba Estate: from the first hesitant inentions over reconfiguring land-use/territorial ‘powers’, over cotton, over developmentalism and stabilisation (the model-modern), over the regimes of Obote, Amin, and Obote again, and to a state of deindustrialisation and something akin to ‘urban rurality’ (noting the implicit norm in what ‘urban’ is, or is not – i.e. growing edibles in the backyard). A large part of the analysis in these ‘phases’ turns around the comparison of how the Walukuba Estate and its residents deals with alcohol, agriculture, and sub-letting. All three more or less over the years restricted or regulated, all three to various degrees practised at the estate over its existence.

It is a tour de force of heterogeneous methods and rigourous ethnography, field-work on site and in archives. Some of the walkabout vignettes are reminiscent of Maspero’s (1994) banlieu excursion. As meticulous as a Peter Hall, but with the twist of a post-colonial and poststructuralist prodding tools. In this case, Foucault, Deleuze (and Guattari), and to some degree Lefebvre, make up the principles of what is worthwile to see in Jinja’s becoming for an urban student. And in all of this, Byerley remains a constructionist through-and-through. Luckily, one might add, since he deals with planning and governmentality projects. Because the virtue of a constructionist approach is that it never really abandons the sense that it could have been otherwise. (E.g. the British Empire’s hesitation on what to do with the protectorate around (Jinja , p. 118).)

To save this review from a straight and boring eulogy, and since it would be a quite uninteresting piece of research if it didn’t bother us with something, there are two issues I find somewhat disturbing.

Firstly, to pick up on what Latour wrote, that a good text gives you the sense of ‘give me more details’ (Latour, 2005). Becoming Jinja, by being a thick monograph with much detailed information strangely deflects some of the ‘give me more’, but paradoxically I still want to know more about this history – I turn a saturated but not satisfied reader: what, for instance, was a day in the office like for a Walukuba Estate official? (Even if the author presents a beautiful panorama from the maize mill tower, a ‘placing’ of Jinja in a de Certaurian sense, in chapter 8; it roughly describes the contemporary daily rhythm of the industrial ensemble.) Or how the beverages are produced in the analytical theme of ‘becoming alcoholic’ – how a day in a bar is like, or even a description of how the various ways of brewing the waragi and malwa drinks tastes like. But apart form the all the things I don’t know about life in Jinja, the text also makes me curious on how – even if we supposedly got hundreds of texts already – governmentality works in other developing parts of the world, like Europe for instance.

Secondly, in the end, Byerley leaves us social scientists hanging. Consequent and true to his philosophical stance of ‘becoming,’ it is still giving a sense of ‘why all of this work?’ Because the text points at what might become of Jinja, but not what might become of the resources used to problematise this/the story and describe it! What or why was it more useful than any other method or approach? How did it help to work out? To which the author might simply respond: it’s my choice of method, take it or leave it. (Although, there is a short discussion on the problem of opposite binaries, e.g. power/resistance, and the methodological solution to look ‘in-between’ instead, to stick to Foucault and use agonism instead of antagonism.) But a small discussion or argument on the choice compared to other ones out there would have added a needed degree of relevancy. Since the topic – the central questions on things becoming – is a many times tried to get a grip on (in planning studies at least) but seldom handled well. There are vast amounts of text in the social sciences merely applying theories on the topic without moving an inch beyond what we already know. Byerley, even in ducking this explication, shows us a way to take objectivity seriously again. For instance, in a comment on the contemporary practice in colonial studies: ‘… in spite of a revisionism that has increasingly characterised much research pertaining to urban colonial processes, much of this research seems to forget or ignore the voices of people living on these estates despite these very same studies decrying their neglect; the archive, it seems to me, continues to take all.’ (Jinja, p. 36) And, immanent throughout the book, by following Foucault’s dictum that human actors know what they do and why, but they do not know what their actions effect. But the weak position in connecting to wider urban studies problems, or social science for that matter, could also be said to be one of the book’s strenghts, since it is truly up to the reader to figure out or pick up the lessons taught. In other words, it is not much of an infantilising tone neither on the topic nor on the presumed reader.

For all who are interested in why planning projects rarely turn out as intended, the genre of deviant and detouring implementations of plans like Peter Hall’s or Bent Flyvbjerg’s works, on urban phenomena, this book is or should be added to their reading lists.

It's worth a couple of pints.

HOLSTON, J. (1989), The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasília, Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.

LATOUR, B. (2005), Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

MASPERO, F. (1994), Roissy Express: A Journey Through the Paris Suburbs, London, New York: Verso.

SENNETT, R. (1997), Fleisch und Stein. Der Körper und die Stadt in der westlichen Zivilisation, Berlin: Suhrkamp.